America's been a closet world-music nut throughout the 20th century. From the African musical traditions that started the blues to the Arabic and Spanish influences on surf rock, music that's seen as uniquely American may as well have its own ancestry.com page. In that respect, local worldbeat makers Terraphonics are continuing a tradition as old as pop music.
But, it didn't really start out that way. The band originated as a simple concept sound engineer/guitarist Thomas Kenney had. "I'm a recording fanatic, and I always wanted to sample everyone in town," says Kenney. "I've always wanted to sample all of them in their prime and make a collage out of it." While that didn't happen in a literal manner, the concept did open the door that Terraphonics walked out of, as they combined Lowcountry genres like jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.
When Kenney's world music obsession began to creep into the fold, Eastern and African old-world rhythms were pasted over new music styles, while still keeping the local influences. Don't feel intimidated by the description — it sounds way more complicated than it is. As Kenney explains, "these foreign rhythms are directly living in our contemporary culture," and the evidence is everywhere. Look at Wu-Tang's use of Asian film score samples, or the banjo's similarly designed African precursor. Most people will be surprised at how much they unknowingly interact with foreign music.
And if it still seems hard to understand, just listen to the band's newly released LP Tarab. It features a seamless combination of flavors from other continents that don't require a master's in ethnomusicology to understand. And, thanks to the album's jazz and soul backbone, it feels less like world music and more like worldly music.
A lot of that, and the distinct hip-hop twist Tarab employs, is a direct product of the unique flare that drummer Brandon Brooks, bassist Alex Kellner, and keyboardist Jonathan Lovett spark on every tune. Brooks has an ability to mime foreign rhythms without alienating fans who just want to tap their feet. The title track is a great example of his bustling play. It hits hard but never turns showy and has enough subtleties to convince the listener to isolate his drum track.
Kellner's is the piece that anchors the group to their jazz and soul roots. He plays around the stranger moments of "Half Caff" and keeps a groovy undercurrent that drags fans deep in. Kellner also contributes additional synths throughout the album, adding layers upon layers to a sound that's dependent on them.
Lovett steals the show, though. He sets the mood for most of Tarab with swelling keys and synths that wade through the listener's brain. His contributions float in and out on the intro track "Slow Dance," crash down on the shore with "After the Blast," and bring Tarab full circle with the freestyle-friendly instrumental "Lovett's Outro."
The band's wide list of featured artists needs a special shoutout, too. Because of Kenney's music engineering background and use of a turntable in live shows, most of their worldbeat mish-mash begs to be looped and rapped over. So, it's only fitting that Kevin Shields of Little Strangers could show up to effortlessly up the band's strut factor with his verse on West-Coast funk tune "Get it Thumpin'." His appearance was featured on the band's Visitors EP.
Local singer-songwriter Regina Ferguson makes an appearance on Tarab's "Visitors.2," giving it a heavy boost of blue-eyed soul over the R&B piano chords and galloping cymbals. In addition, Jeffery Wilson, Dan Voss, Robbi Kenney, and Gino Castillo all add their respective talents to the fold. "Ideally, I want to have everybody in Charleston on these records," says Kenney. "I want to highlight their strengths."
At Terraphonics' core is a sense of community, whether it be with Charleston locals or with other parts of the world. They've dug their heels deep into a place where jazz, R&B, Arabic music, and spacey sound effects intersect. It's obviously a group effort. It just happens to be a bigger group than most people expect.